Chelsea should beware Middlesbrough as Agnew's men show survival fight
Middlesbrough will take great confidence for the big three games ahead following their best performance of the season in a 2-2 draw against Manchester City at the Riverside last Sunday.
Steve Agnew's men will feel hard done by after midfield dynamo Marten de Roon was harshly adjudged to have brought down Leroy Sane in the Boro box (which video highlights later proved to be a dive). Without this error from referee Kevin Friend, the Teessiders could well have gone on to win this crucial game and kept their dwindling hopes of Premier League survival alive. However, Agnew will be spinning a line of positivity and looking to increase the confidence of a team who seemed to turn a corner following their single victory of 2017 against Sunderland recently.
The Boro faithful seem to be split on whether or not Agnew is the right man to take the club forward and lead the charge next season, with relegation this term almost inevitable. The former assistant to ex-head coach Aitor Karanka and Steve Bruce at Hull has plenty of experience in helping guide teams from the Championship into the top flight, so he will be well aware of the challenges ahead and what is expected of him. He is also held in good regard by Boro chairman Steve Gibson, so a fresh appointment in the summer does look unlikely.
No matter who is at the helm come the start of next season, their summer will be a busy one that is packed with wheeling and dealing. It's probable that many of the club's Spanish and Uruguayan players, brought in by Karanka and his backroom cohorts, will leave the club, particularly if the Agnew link is broken. The big-name loan stars -- Victor Valdes and Alvaro Negredo -- may look to play out their latter years back in Spain and at a more prominent place than a Championship side, and defensive loanee Calum Chambers will wish to stay in the top flight and potentially return back to his home club, Arsenal.
What will be key for Boro is holding on to the talent of Adam Clayton, Adam Forshaw and George Friend, who were all pivotal in the previous battles for promotion. Above all else, homegrown hero Ben Gibson -- chairman Steve's nephew -- has been outstanding for the team for a good few years now. His effort and skill has not gone unnoticed, with a host of top English clubs keeping tabs on him and his well-deserved call-up to the England squad back in April.
Gibson has formed a terrific alliance with centre-back Chambers, and the pair were mercurial against Man City, doing an excellent job of keeping the twin threat of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus under wraps. They will need to be at the top of their games again on Monday to look after the likes of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard, who were rampant in their most recent game, a 3-0 victory away at Everton.
Agnew will stick with the successful lineup from last week, featuring Cristhian Stuani and Stewart Downing in support of Negredo up front. It is apparent that Gaston Ramirez will not feature again for Boro after his continued bad attitude following a refused transfer request back in January, and culminating in his reckless meltdown in the defeat at Bournemouth.
Tottenham's slip-up at West Ham on Friday evening may also do Boro's efforts a favour. Chelsea now sit four points clear at the top with a game in hand. It's pretty unlikely, but maybe a feeling of "job done" could creep in and give Boro the advantage on Monday evening? One thing is for sure, Chelsea still need to be switched on and alert to surprises as Boro have proved there is still some life in the old dog yet.
Catherine Wilson ESPN FC's Middlesbrough blogger. You can follow her on Twitter: @Basslady